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Helping Hispanic Families of Converts Understand Islam - An Interview with Vilma Santos

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Posted on Sep 24, 2019
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By Layla Abdullah-Poulos

For more than ten years, a growing number of Hispanics (mostly women) in the U.S. and Latin America have been leaving Catholicism and entering Islam, with Hispanic Muslims growing as a demographic in American Muslim culture. Conversion to Islam (or any new faith) comes with many challenges stemming from a shift in the living of one’s life. Family and friends may also find a new Muslim’s transition into their faith hard to accept. A lack of understanding about the religion can lead to tension and schisms within the family.

Vilma Santos, the new host of the show Construyendo Puentes de Paz (Building Bridges of Peace) with Vilma A Santos on America’s Islamic Radio, is very familiar with these struggles. Her objective is to provide information to non-Muslim Hispanics who may be struggling to understand Islam. Santos is a graphic designer born and raised in Puerto Rico. She studied education at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico and Suffolk County Community College in New York and provides da’wah (teaching about Islam) in Spanish for a number of organizations.

Santos graciously took some time to share her experiences in interfaith and intracultural da’wah as well as and reaching out to non-Muslims in Latin America, so they can learn more about Islam.

Vilma Santos

Vilma Santos recording for America's Islamic Radio.

You've worked for years in da’wah to *Latinos in the U.S. What drives you to do the work?

I started being active in interfaith [work] about 14 years ago. I decided to collaborate with different da’wah organizations, like Muslims Giving Back, American Muslims for Hunger Relief, Why Islam and Islam in Spanish ten years ago.

I live with lupus and was extremely sick from my first attack. The doctors told me that there was not much they could do at that point. I made a lot of du’a and visited the Haram many times. I prayed, Please, Allah. If my time is not finished, please make a miracle with me. I believe in you. Please forgive my sins if you are taking me. Either way, I will be content with your decision.

I decided to take my son to Florida and spend some of my last days with him. When we came back two weeks later, He told me, “Mommy, your face is changing.” Four months later, the specialist told me that my lupus was in remission. I knew my illness didn’t have a cure, but I felt better and was [able to get] out of the bed.

I understood that I needed to work. I wanted to thank Allah for his miracle. That is when I started doing interfaith and straight da’wah. [Various organizations] needed someone who spoke Spanish. They started asking me, and I said yes.

What are some of the things that make Latinos interested in Islam?

I wouldn’t say there is a specific reason. Many people [show interest] because they have a Muslim family member, neighbor or coworker, and they want to learn a little more [about the faith]. What I found very interesting is that many people come because they felt depression in their life, and Islam and the Holy Quran is a message of hope. They feel closer to God with the way Islam presents as a religion, so they feel a little better.

In my case, I felt a lot of depression. I was living completely in the dunya (world). Finding Islam made me feel more secure and calm, and I learned more about spirituality and factors that are very important for human beings and their tranquility.

Following the prayers and the commitment a person makes with God helps a lot because they need to be more respectful and conscious. I think that’s an important reason why [one’s] level of consciousness is higher when they try to practice Islam.

What are some challenges facing Latino Muslims inside Muslim spaces?

No doubt, the family is the biggest challenge. We [often] can’t have good relationships with our family members when we practice our religion. Most of them don’t understand and have totally different ideas about what our religion means.

Another big challenge that people don’t realize [involves] our identities. Our identities are lost. [Many of us] become Muslim with the help of someone from a [majority] Muslim country, and we start imitating what they do and start confusing what is religion and what is culture. It makes the Hispanic Muslim community so divided because we automatically think that people coming from those countries are correct.

We feel the necessity to have a family but lack [familial] support because we hear nonsense like, you don’t have to listen to your family; you don’t have to listen to your mother. That divides us and hurts our souls and identities.

You are a new host on America’s Islamic Radio. Can you tell us a little about your show?

Building Bridges is a program that I started a while ago with one of my friends. We saw the necessity for family and friends of Muslim converts to develop a better understanding of Islam. We wanted to talk about Islam directly to families and neighbors and make converts’ lives easier.

We launched a successful one-day program that included family and friends of Muslim converts who wanted to give support but didn’t understand how to, because there are no programs that ask how a person feels being Latina/o and Muslim.

America’s Islamic Radio contacted me, and we had a conversation. I told them about the program, and they said it was something they were looking for. The radio show offered a way to talk about faith and identity and discuss personal situations, struggles and challenges. I thought it was pretty amazing and accepted the offer to do the show. It’s very important to me. My family suffered a lot when I converted to Islam. There was not enough information for them. We’re doing it rice and beans style, with a lot of sincerity and words they can understand.

Alhamdulillah, the show is [well received]. I love it when people, including non-Muslims, tell me how amazing the program is. It makes me want to continue. A lot of people were also upset. They told me that I was turning away from new Muslims who needed me, but I’m not. I’m giving opportunities for families. People ask me, “Hey, Vilma, can you talk to my mom? Can you talk to my dad? Can you talk to my cousin?” This program will open the door for non-Muslims to learn what Islam is.

Vilma Santos

Why is it important for the show to be in Spanish?

In many Latin American countries, the stories of what happened with Spanish history is not well explained when we go to school. It always starts with Christopher Columbus discovering America. That is why I was so fascinated with Islam. It was something new to me that belongs to my culture, but for some reason, that wasn’t told in school.

We need to be in the media telling people that Islam is not only for Arabs. It is a part of our history. That is why we do the show in Spanish, so people can understand better. It’s a human [and Islamic] right to explain in the language of the people and make it easier for them to understand.

What are some of the topics you cover?

[We focus on the] basics of Islam. What is Islam; why do people pray five times a day? Sometimes, I talk about things that happened to me in the past [and] funny stories to help people see from a different view. We will have people on the show in the future.

What are some of the common questions non-Muslim family members ask you? What are some misconceptions you constantly address?
[They always ask me about how] men can have four wives. They [also] have this idea that Muslim men are allowed to mistreat their wives, to take the kids [and] hit the woman. Whatever the media says. 
My family [thought] that I stopped loving Jesus. I felt like they felt like I was a traitor. There are a lot of families like that. [For] a lot of people who convert to Islam, that's the main thing. You're a traitor because you don't love Jesus anymore. 
[They'll say] look at what you're doing to me. They take it personally, and they don't want to explore. It is important that the family knows what's up. If your family sees that there is something beautiful there, they might want to help you understand the basics of Islam. 

What are some ways that you connect with Muslims from diverse backgrounds?

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. It is easier for me to connect with different backgrounds because I grew up simply, and Islam teaches us to live in simplicity. I love to talk to people and see what they have in common with me. I am a talker. I go and talk to everybody. I don’t care where they’re from.

If you’re interested in learning more, these Islamic organizations service Hispanic Muslims: Latino American Dawah Organization, La Asociación Latino Musulmana de América, HispanicMuslims.com, IslamInSpanish, HablamosIslam, PIEDAD.

*Note from Layla, author of this interview: Hispanics are people who speak Spanish and are descendants of Spanish-Speaking people. Latinos are people in or descendants of people from Latin America. They don't all speak Spanish. For example, my mother-in-law is Hispanic and Latina. She speaks Spanish, and her parents are from Puerto Rico. My husband's brother and most of his cousins are Latino/a. They're parents/grandparents are from Puerto Rico or some other part of Latin America, but they don't speak Spanish. The words are often used interchangeably.


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